Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Northumberland Pit Pony

That'll do nicely. All the way from the Northumberland Brewery, this is a fairly light, but fruity bitter. 3.8% ABV. More of an autumn taste, but could have drunk it all evening but things to do, things to do. Courtesy of The Gate at Sawbridgeworth.

The day the mass market was born

We have a very warped sense of history. We build our images and our assumptions from the sets of TV or films, and much of this is undoubtedly inaccurate. Furthermore, the sets are usually those of the maybe 10,000 members of the richest, most splendid with little attention paid to the mundane surroundings and lifestyles of the workers and peasants.
At the turn of the 18th Century, most people in England owned the clothes they stood up in, a spare set, some cooking implements and a wooden plate. Almost no-one owned even a wooden cup, yet 25 years later almost everyone did.
It is so difficult understanding what people did, where and how they shopped, what they did with what little free time they had.

Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian England brings the history of the consumer society to glorious life; how it all started and why - advertising, sports, entertainment, possessions, from necessities to luxuries. It's a bit misleading as Judith Flanders addresses a far wider range of topics than might be expected from such a dry title.

She even dates the start of the mass market to precisely the 26th May 1851, the first day of the 'one shilling' days at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

1 in 282 billion lottery coincidence?

In late April, two men ecstaticly celebrated winning the lottery. One man was from from Suihua in northerly Heilongjiang province and the other thousands of kilometres away in central China's Henan province.

It was only a month later that an eagle-eyed reporter noticed that as well as having the same ticket number, the two tickets were issued at exactly the same time - to the second.

A maths professor calculated that the odds against two people choosing the same number was about 1 in 282 billion. Then factor in the bit about those two people picking that same number at exactly the same time. Spooky.

If you placed an accumulator bet for Man Utd to finish rock bottom of the Premiership in 2009/10, Hull to win it, Scunthorpe to win the FA Cup and Angola to win the World Cup ..... that'd be odds of only 1 in 73 billion.

Sadly, more statute mathematicians have pointed the reality that in order to generate true random numbers, a seed number is needed first - and that an appropriate seed number is a unique time. So having solved the identical timing, we are left with 'just' the bit about the 1 in 282 billion odds.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Caledonian Top Banana

It sounds gross. Beer with a hint of a banana taste. But I persevered at the Williamson's and it was just brilliant! Who would have thought it. 4.1% ABV, so not too strong as well.

Painting the Forth Bridge was easier

Just three months after owning North Star I need to start painting lots of parts of her. It's amazing how bits of paint flake off everywhere. I should rename her Forth Bridge.

Most bits are my the bow which is used to test the strength of most lock wing walls, the damn curvy-out bit of the tiller post that scrapes lock gates, the roof, the handrails (thanks tiny BCN bridges and Ashted!), cabin door slide. Mutter, mutter. Can't believe it, etc.

Trouble is I have no idea what paint was used and the previous owner is uncontactable. Chris at Nottingham Boat Sales reckons it would be International Paint, although they don't do anything like the turquoise I need for the roof top.

I need to put anti-slip on the gunwales as well. Then there's the huge issue of the boat-name and the previous owner's sign-written cabin sides. Should I just repaint that section, or will it make the rest of the boat look odd and scabby? Will repainting just that panel make it look as if I've just nicked her?

Who should I get to do the sign-writing? Jan Deuchar? Mick Day? I think he sign writes.

Oh decisions, decisions, decisions.

Travelodge to stock real ale

It doesn't feel quite right, does it? But hats off to a company who seem to deliberately choose the most boring parts of provincial towns to build hotels and then fill them, night after night after night. Good, affordable, reliable - excellent service. The Easyjet of hotels and now with real ale.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Where to now for the Basingstoke Canal?

The Basingstoke Canal is in crisis: there is a considerable shortfall in funding and there is a definite lack of commitment from the owners. Because it is owned by local councils, this means that effectively it is run by local politicians. And we all know how good politicians are at running anything. Those involved with the canal locally are extremely concerned for the short-term future of the canal.

But is the current crisis something that should have been considered and assessed a long time ago, when restoration was first being planned and executed? Is this a lesson for other restoration projects elsewhere?

Today, all around the country, canal restoration projects continue to whistle up support for their programme, promising a few new miles of waterway for the user. My sense is that the majority of the subcribers to these projects and the restoration volunteers primarily see themselves as boaters.
The evidence suggests that there is a plethora of supporters when the waterway is a weed-filled ditch, but decades later when money and personnel are still needed for maintenance and sustaining the reopened waterway, the numbers dwindle and age. This summer's Basingstoke Canal News - the newsletter of the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society - mentions meetings in 1979 when 500 people attended, while their recent AGM scraped just 40. The magazine is littered with references to the need for new and younger members. It really doesn't help that the back cover contains two rather sexist advertisements for volunteers: one for a female "crew manager" and one for a male"mechanic". A younger generation is typically much more sensitive to those kinds of sexist comments and may feel that that kind of 'old fashioned' attitude is par for the course at the Basingstoke. It's also not helped by a fairly woeful website.
Yet the members of the Surrey & Hampshire remain fit, active and dedicated, undertaking significant structural restoration work each year, and they deserve huge credit for this.

But how much of this is remembered at a time when councils are changing, politicians are becoming more weasly and the purse springs get tightened? The society needs to find creative and innovative ways not just to appeal to the communities in their constituency but also to the local government officials, the flunkeys from ME and the EA, to policiticans (for goodness sake, five out of ten Vice Presidents are MPs.....surely even you can find a use for Michael Gove - perhaps as a ground paddle!?)

The Surrey and Hampshire is, however, not the only waterways society suffering a generally aging population: I have heard similar stories in connection with the IWA nationally and locally, the BCN, NABO and others. The situation is not helped by a tendency for societies to become increasingly a clique where it can be difficult for all but the most extroverted to break in to established routines, procedures and friendships.
It is very difficult because it is this older generation - of good, warm people in their 50s, 60s, 70s - who are the 'heros of the revolution' - toiling through the dark days of the 1950s and 1960s to save what we have now. Their ownership of the whole waterways movement is extremely strong and they have good reason to feel that they should be in charge, brooking no dissent from the younger generation.

But the truth is that change is needed if today's societies are to appeal to a younger audience or a wider audience tomorrow. Yesterday's leaders - who are still, by and large, today's leaders - need to take a deep breath and let go: they need to open the doors more widely and take more time to meet new people, new members, the partly interested and even outsiders. It's not just waterways societies that are struggling though - it can be seen in different sectors and even in different countries. Both Robert Putnam and Francis Fukuyama have written extensively about declining and changing social capital.

With massive government funding cutbacks absolutely inevitable, the waterways community is going to need to rely on itself even more in the coming years and that will need stronger, more cohesive groups than we have at present.

We may well yet be fighting again to stop closures of remainder waterways again. And the first campaign may be the Basingstoke.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Public

Art is always a contentious subject and you can be guaranteed that public money spent on it will incur the wrath of many residents and the national media. I remember a debate years ago about whether there should be a large sculpture placed in Stratford High Street in London's east end. A perplexed local stated that it just wasn't right for Stratford as "we are too ordinary for this", and that it would be more suitable for New York or the West End or somewhere famous. Like Ilford." Famous like Ilford? What an indictment to consider your town or district less famous and less worthy of public sculpture than Ilford.

And so - perhaps a decade later - we see the same argument being used to rubbish The Public, a new and interesting arts and community development in West Bromwich. Putting aside the obvious stupidity of the name (try Googling it) and the fact that it's technically THEpUBLIC, claims that taxpayer money is being wasted is understandable but misguided: local authorities are tasked with providing a balance of services to its residents; providing for the arts locally, in a variety of manners, is legitimate. While many councils tend to spread investments at extremely low level, with varying success, some - like Sandwell here - have chosen to occasionally back an iconic project. Nearby in Birmingham, the success of the developments around Broad Street and the Gas Street Basin - many of them art-related - suggests that places can be reinvented and reinvigorated. Specific art spaces are the anchors for everything in that area.
The people of Sandwell do themselves a great discredit if they simply moan at the cost of regeneration. The Public has already won awards and it has already shown itself to be at the cutting edge, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's sadly typical and rather "21st Century" to have disrespect for anything which which we disagree in the slightest. Perhaps we need to take a more relaxed, tolerant approach towards those with ideas and the motivation to regenerate old industrial areas. Certainly Sandwell has significant social and economic problems, and I suspect that few people objected too strongly to the public investments that saw old factories torn down and replaced by endless steel box sheds and lonely industrial estates. Well The Public is an equivalent arts investment that will also create jobs, create revenue, create taxes, create other artistic opportunities for local people, and make West Bromwich a slightly better place to live. And trust me, the latter is desperately needed.

What The Public needs most from local people is for its friends and detractors to stand together and say "It's here. It's ours. Let's make a success of it." Using art as an anchor for regeneration has worked all over the world - give it a chance in Sandwell.

It's about local pride, folks.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The shifting sands of China

Nothing to do with boats, but more to do with a past lifetime, this series of articles on desertification in Northwest China make tragic reading. Eastern Xinjiang through Gansu into Ningxia and northern Shaanxi is an area I know very well, having worked there for five years.

It's all a long way from narrowboats and locks and men in blue blazers and dazzlingly white beards hurling abuse at you, but the environmental tragedy of this northern ragged edge of populated China is still heart-breaking. Maybe the distance - in miles and time - makes it worse. I do miss it.

Mooring gazetteer needed

It amazes me how little up-to-date information there is on moorings around the canal network.

You would think that with the Pearsons, the Nicholsons, so many blogs, so many tweets, Canalplanner and now Web 2.0-enabled GPS mashups that something would have been developed.

However, on our recent trip down to Birmingham from Nottingham, we just didn't know ahead of time, what the situation would be like when we arrived at places. We couldn't see from maps and guides whether moorings were permitted for 48 hours, 24 hours or 14 days. Sometimes it just wasn't clear how secure they were, whether there was a cost (as there are at most private moorings). I felt we spent an inordinate amount of time reading and checking, and some days we cut our cruising short to be sure of getting a decent mooring.

Since then, I have seen so many posts in forums about safe moorings, especially in urban areas where choosing the right mooring can mean the difference between a good night's sleep and waking (or returning) to find your boat repainted by the local yoof.

When I first arrived in the city centre of Birmingham, I learnt that some visitor moorings were a lot safer than others, but also that some moorings have certain features or attributes that could be important.

At Hockley Port,for example, there are some 14 day visitor moorings but they are close to a house where the occupants have been known to get drunk and chuck rubbish and water-filled balloons at the boats. Also, these visitor moorings are so secure that you rely on residential moorers to get on and off the site because the access key is not a standard BW key.

Then at Walsall I saw visitor moorings on a map. These turn out to be great for overnight visitor moorings because they are on the offside with no land access. However, it would have been a shock if yo had been relying on these moorings to then go away overnight and return. It's a similar situation at the Star City moorings on the Saltley branch. Cuckoo Wharf, on the Aston flight, meanwhile has both CCTV cameras and residential boats so is fairly safe and secure. Merry Hill over at Brierly Hill has fenced pontoon 14 day visitor moorings, but you need to pick up a key during working hours from the Tourist Information Centre.

It got me thinking that there should be some form of XML for canal and river moorings which could be blogged, tweeted (therefore less than 140 characters needed) or otherwise stored and updated by waterways users.

You'd need a specific canal code. That sounds easy, but on some canals, such as the BCN, there are many branches, arms and lines which would need to be used as you can't for example, just identify a location as by "Lock 4" or "Bridge 23" of the BCN.

Lots of ideas spinning theough my head but I have this vision of some kind of code that would be unintelligible to the uninitiated but would be content-rich (I do hate that phrase) for boaters. Like #engmoor woc ryd e031a ov14 565r 25x 03756 45678 wt0 ns1 sh3 res0 tv0.
This would translate as being a mooring on the Wednesbury Old Canal, on the Ryders Green section, less than 500m east of Bridge 31, on the towpath side, an official 14 day visitor mooring, no security, unfenced, isolated, space for more than 25 boats, less than 250m from a pub and laundrette and indian takeaway (closed Mondays) but no supermarket, no water, quite quiet, shady but with no residential boaters and no CCTV coverage of the moorings; real ale within 500m. (The hashtag could be used to note English moorings)

Just random, rambling thoughts. It's the nerd in me. Shoot me.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

New locks needed for Panama Canal

Not sure if the WRG are one of the three bidders or perhaps the Bradley Workshops, for the three new locks on the Panama Canal. Expected to be above $3 billion cost though. That's a lot of those little dump trucks and a lot of urns of tea.

More dead fish....on Chichester Canal

It would seem that two things are being blamed for the lack of oxygen in the water.

A 4 foot fall in the water level and too much weed.

You know what removes weed? Boats.
You know who would never allow a drop in water level of more than a few inches? Yes. Boaters.

I can feel a solution coming on. Shock. Horror.

Yet why is it that so often - but not in this case, it seems - the polluter is the company charged with providing us with clean water?

Funny thing is one local said "It's a dreadful site [sic] to see ten-year-old fish that any angler would be pleased to catch, gasping for air." Well at least he's gasping for air without a big steel hook sticking through his jaw, eh?

The Book Barge

I had this idea, many years ago, to sell books from a narrowboat. I didn't pursue it because I discussed it with an ancient-looking bookseller in Hay-on-Wye. She cackled and screamed with laughter.

"Don't do it!" she howled.
"Look at me!" she cried, her wiry frame heaving and quivering. "How old am I?"
"Errrrr" I hummed, not wanting to offend the old crone.
"Twenty-two!" she mocked.
"Selling books is only ever going to make you very poor. And remember you sell the books that other people want to read, not the ones you want to read. Anyway, my friend Jeff has a better idea."

Then it was my time to fall about laughing. Sell books online? Yeh, right.

Good to see that someone at last has taken the plunge and done what still seems to me to be the ultimate romantic dream. A bit like 84 Charing Cross Road with a windlass. Good luck, Sarah.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Is it bad in Walsall?

I was there a few weeks back with the BCN Marathon Challenge, and it seemed OK. Not, however, if you are the Putting the World To Rights blog and the associated Walsall is it bad Twitter stream, who is intent on holding the local council and councillors to account for all of Walsall's woes. No, seriously. All of the woes. Every single one.

Given the obvious frustration, you get the sense that it won't be long before m'learned friends appear on the scene. He's clearly only ever half a sentence away from uttering "I can't belieeeeeeve it!"

PS: In the headline information, Putting the World to Rights notes that the blog is about Walsall, UK. In case you might think it was the Walsall in Uzbekistan.

Tory MP suspended from Facebook

Hilarious to see that MP Michael Fabricant - the waterways-friendly Tory - has been suspended from Facebook for spamming. I always think Fabricant and Boris Johnson must be related somehow. BoJo and MiFa, the cloned Tory boys.

Richard Healey RIP

Deeply saddened to read of the untimely death of Richard Healey, the founder of the Baggies Barge.

Richard started the Baggies Barge a few years ago when a mate noted how it would be quicker to get to the The Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion, from Birmingham City Centre by boat rather than by car.

For selected matches, Richard operated a boat, complete with beer but no Liquidator ;-), from Brindleyplace to Smethwick, just a few hundred yards from the ground. On several occasions, such was its speed, the boat was offered a place in the Albion's back four.

Of course, at some early stage, red tape contrived to stop the operation, presumably HSE concerns and on one trip he was barely able to land his passengers at Smethwick. But the service was revived and became a big feature of the day out for many Albion fans. I don't recall it ever being taken to Broad Street Bridge for away matches though - that would have been something!

My thoughts are with his family, but I know the spirit of the Baggies Barge will certainly live on as his legacy.

Ulverston Canal to be restored

Delighted to read that the Ulverston Canal is to be restored, so marking the first stage of a plan to create a Cumbria Ring that involved the Ribble Link, the Ulverston, the Forth & Clyde, the Humber and the Leeds & Liverpool. I expect to see Canaltime boats shortly with SOLAS certificates and a plimsoll line.

The Ulverston Canal, opened in 1789, was last used in 1916, and abandoned in 1945; more recently, the entrance lock-gate was cemented up.

Oddly enough, the restoration plans seem to rely on the canal being well-known; apparently it is famous as the world's "shortest, widest and deepest canal"; there is something absurdly useless about that statement - it can only have been invented by some witless marketing muppet. Typically, though, despite lots of gushing vision statements about the canal, it turns out that there are no plans for boats or boaters. Why on earth would anyone want boats on a canal? A cursory examination of the plans shows no tunnels in which rare bats can hang out, so it is not clear why boats are to be excluded. Given that the canal has just one lock to restore, it seems even more odd. The WRG tend to do "one lock" jobs blindfolded during a teabreak.
It would seem to be perfect as a yacht marina, possibly attracting a wide variety of craft as with the Exeter Canal.

In days gone by, there was a passenger packet service from Ulverston to Liverpool.

The decision to exclude boats is perhaps ironic, given that the model everywhere else is to fleece boaters and subsidise the leisure pursuits of every other user. Maybe this time, the good planners of Ulverston can find a way to make dog-walkers and horse-riders pay. Or cleverer still, do a half-arsed, ham-fisted job of it all, but good enough to last a few years until promotion sucks the planners away elsewhere; then the canal will sink back into graffiti and obscurity as South Cumbria's prime dogging land mattress dumping ocation.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Brindleyplace, Mailbox - does it all make sense?

Twenty five years ago, I walked the canals around the centre of Birmingham. Although there was some development at Gas Street and there was a pub at Cambrian Wharf, there wasn't much to distinguish the area from any other urban part of the canals around Birmingham and the Black Country.

Today, ironically, the Gas Street wharves are quiet and idle, while just 100 yards away in either direction, life is booming. Again, just yards past Old Turn as you descend the locks, the canalside party disappears again. Is it ironic that the real facilities of the Cut have failed to be revitalised properly, while linear stretches of canal are perhaps just peripheral to urban regeneration?

On looking through the UNESCO World Heritage Site nomination and management plan for the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal site, I noticed that there is almost nothing at all about boats or boaters. I am thrilled that Britain's waterways heritage is specifically recognised by the government and UNESCO, but - with experience of the management and development of World Heritage sites elsewhere - I am concerned that the significant constraints on revenue-generating facilities, often needs income to be increased from existing mechanisms and users.

There are significant plans for improving car parking and improving access for all, but I don't recall seeing a single word about the role that boats and boaters have played, do play or will play in the future. With the arguable exception of BW, no boating organisation seems to have had much of a role in developments so far and there are no signs that boaters' interests will be defended in the future.

Indeed, I am alarmed by the prospect of a proposed Friends of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in the management plan because this could well suck people, revenue and interests away from the wider issues of cultural heritage - including waterways heritage - in favour of the World Heritage Site. Of all the stretches of canal in Britain that least need a body of volunteers, workers, "friends", Pontcysyllte is probably the one that needs them least. Yet no so many miles away lie unrestored sections of canal, decaying buildings and facilities and an absence of interpretation and engagement. Some of our waterways museums are falling to pieces and barely managing to stay solvent, with many boats and artefacts deteriorating badly.

You won't find many supermarket trolleys or mattresses near Llangollen, nor much graffiti; you won't find many walls dragged down and dumped in the Cut or attractive buildings torched.
Our waterways heritage is found more in the grubby backstreets of the urban Midlands and in the unfashionable parts of Slough, Northampton, Huddersfield, Manchester and Preston, than in the lush pastures of North Wales. In these urban areas, the best that we can hope for is not a cultural revitalisation but a regeneration focused on theme pubs, smart restaurants and designer shops.

It is frustrating - and, I suggest, untenable - that heritage can only rise to the fore when in a rural setting, preferably with milkmaids and haymeadows, while in urban areas it becomes a question of sucking premium developers in based on a 30' wide silver thread of water. It's lazy regeneration. The risk is that the physical fabric gets swept away so that it doesn't get in the way of grand plans - look at the east side of Birmingham. How long before the Curzon Street station building becomes a hotel or a restaurant?

The developments at Walsall Town Arm seem stilted and poorly conceived, there are none at all in Wolverhampton and elsewhere on the BCN - like the Titford Pumphouse - the restoration of a single building does nothing for or to the surrounding area.

It should not be a question of rural waterways regeneration OR urban waterside regeneration, as it is now. We should be able to regenerate and revitalise the waterways and the waterside simultaneously. It requires planners to recognise that 'access for all' includes boaters and anglers and that regeneration must involve all sections of the community, not just the affluent and the drinkers.

It has been shown what can be created when creativity meets heritage meets money. If it can be done at Fradley, why not at Fazeley? If at the Malthouse Stables, why not at Brades Hall? If at Cambrian Wharf, why not at Monument Bridge just hundreds of yards away? or perhaps around the Icknield Port loop?

If heritage becomes sanitised and presented only as an urban planning tool, then we stand to lose large parts of the network. A way has to be found to bring revenue to the whole system, so that we don't lose any more old buildings, old wharves or old boats. We need a new mechanism that can sustainably integrate heritage, commerce and regeneration: not the current process that sells on the heritage, then sweeps it away for the coffeeshops and Thai restaurants.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Last Chance, Next Chance

It's one of the best-known sites alongside the canal in the West Midlands: the canyon alongside the derelict Chance Glassworks factory in Smethwick. It's maroon-brown bricks and elegantly proportioned windows gaze, now blankly, out over the New Line way below and the main railway line opposite. Behind, the M5 strides past on concrete legs, leaving bitter, rancid dust all around.

Today, the graffiti artist has declared it to be a Slum in large white letters, but what was Chance? Who or what did this company do, other than the blindlingly obvious?

The Beginnings
The first industry here was a small glassworks, built on part of a Blakeley Hall Farm by Joseph Stock in 1814. At that time, Smethwick was a rural area with just a few houses strung out along the Birmingham to Dudley Road and alongside the canal. It was a ten acre site stretching from Spon Lane towards Oldbury. There had been a farm here since the 14th Century, but the safe, secure and smooth transport offered by the waterway placed a premium on all canalside property.

In those days, it was all open fields and most of the Black Country place-names were simply small villages: it was, of course, first the canals and then the railways that were to change the landscape for ever.

In 1824, Lucas Chance bought the single glasshouse and immediately built a second one, with a third added four years later. However, the firm was not a great success and he needed financial support from his brothers William and George who had built up a successful ironmongery trading business in Birmingham.

Lucas' break came when he visited the more advanced glass manufacturers on the Continent, including those of Georges Bontemps at Choisy-le-Roi outside Paris. Lucas and Georges became good friends and the Frenchman helped with both technology and recruitment of skilled workers. These French craftsmen taught their English colleagues the skills of creating various types of glass, and even left their legacy on local language - apparently the word "journey" (from "journee") is used locally to mean 'a shift', as is the word "gamin" (from "garcon") for 'apprentice'. This was not straightforward as incitement of French workers to emigrate was a serious criminal offence in those days!

The Business Grows
In 1832, Chance started producing sheet glass and so became the first company in Britain to produce flat window glass. The business grew at an incredible speed, requiring new glasshouses but also requiring supporting factories and chemical plants to make the sulphate of soda, sulphur, acid and whote ash. They quickly ran out of space and opened factories nearby, using boats to transfer the products; this included the Oldbury Chemical Works, opened in 1835, which soon became the biggest single chemical plant in the Midlands.

The company made three types of glass - plate, crown and flint - in glasshouses in the shape of a cone, with a huge furnace surrounded by up to eight pots made out of Stourbridge Clay.

Crown glass was the most extensive type, created by a man blowing and waving the glass globule as it was molten, eventually ending up with a large circular sheet of glass. At the centre was a boss, which used to be seen at the centre of so many windows - a swirl of glass like a bullseye. This bullseye style is retained in many heritage buildings around Britain, although most people and owners will have no idea why it was ever done in the first place.

Chance grew fast and expanded into new and different areas: it was to become the world's leading maufacturer of specialist scientific and optical glass. The company was to provide the glass for the Crystal Palace hall of the Great Exhibition in 1851 and also for the Houses of Parliament, including the white glass used for the four faces of Big Ben. Indeed, such was the fame of the Chances firm that their glass was regularly used for glazing the windows of the White House in Washington DC.

One of the most spectacular developments was the creation of the lens for lighthouses which required incredibly complex designs and complicated design. The work became so lucrative that Chance eventually built entire lighthouses - except for the brick structure itself - manufacturing and installing every piece of equipment. Men from the Black Country would travel the world to 'shine the light out onto the seas'. The glass was so pure and the designs so effective that when the company reglazed the St Catharines lighthouse on the Isle of Wight, the lighthouse keepers requested blue-tinted spectacles to protect their eyes from the dazzling light!

Domestic Glassware
Chance Glass was always popular,and even today is much-loved and much-collected.
Several books have been written about the glassware, and given the critical importance of canals to the business - and perhaps vice-versa for a while - it would seem that Chanceware would be as collectable to the waterways community as Meashamware!

Last Chance, Next Chance
Chances started to decline before the Second World war, possibly constrained by their cramped location in Smethwick. They were in competition with glass manufacturers from all over the world and some companies were more successful than others. Pilkington took a share of the company and later, for security reasons during the war, optical glass production was replicated in St Helens. It appears that large parts of the older manufacturing processes were demolished in the mid-1940s, but in 1957 optical glass production moved to St Asaph in Wales.
While the Pilkington-Chance empire grew, mainly using the Pilkington name, in 1981, the Smethwick site closed, and flat glass production moved entirely to St Helens.

Today and Tomorrow
Fittingly, a project to document the living history of the Chance business and its employees won Heritage Lottery Funding in 2006. After much research, a website - Chance Encounters - was launched. Sadly, it seems dormant now, and with hindsight, might have been better considered as part of the website which is active and popular.

A number of photographs of Chance's - including the factory and the processes and products -is at the Revolutionary Players website.

Considerable further information is also available, about both Chance and the glass industry, at the Broadfield House Glass Museum in Stourbridge.

Although the elegant buildings are Smethwick are now long vacant, the lights and glass both vanished, there is some kind of happy ending, as when the Smethwick home of Chance was closed in 1981, a little piece of it moved down to a newer factory in Malvern, where they continued to manufacture glass tubes and other specialist and medical glass equipment.

Happily, in 1992, this little corner of pure Chance became independent again - reintroducing both the Chance name and the Chance logo.

When I am passing by the big walls of Chance, I always imagine it with furnaces roraring, of men pulling huge tubs of molten glass, of boats laden with coal, class, chemicals and waste. The roar of the motorway becomes that of the stoked fires and the rumble of the crates and boxes being shifted. I also imagine that Chances of Smethwick is not dead, just resting.

Grown men don't colour in

For a small number of people, The Blue Book is their bible, a right rivetting read; 205 pages of densely packed information and maps about the Birmingham Canal Navigations.

As it is a photocopied book, hand-made, it's possibly the worst physical production in the history of book publishing; in truth, this wasn't quite what Caxton had in mind as a vision of the future. But if you want to know which bridge on the Farmers Bridge flight had a cast-iron urinal built in to the parapet, then only the Blue Book can tell you that it is at Lancaster Street. Or was - the bridge was swept away some years ago.

The Blue Book - officially Birmingham Canal Navigations - a cruising and walking guide - is bed time reading for a rather small band of people who probably should seek professional help, but then this is the world we live in. More than ten million people watch a TV programme about a groups of real losers locked inside a house: figure that one out.

However, the Blue Book has a significant flaw. The maps are so densely packed with information that it can be difficult to work it all out. So it is accepted practice among owners (The Blue Book Owners Club) to colour in the canal part in light blue pencil.

As I have recently bought a new copy - well, a secondhand copy; the new copies are long gone - I am in the process of colouring it in. This can get a little tedious, so I have taken to doing it on the train in the mornings and evenings.

Yesterday morning, a man got on at Harlow Town, sat down opposite me, gazed in astonishment at me colouring in my Blue Book and said "Grown men don't colour in books, mate!", shaking his head.

Yeh, right. Like someone who chose to live in Harlow can advise on current trends.